Extreme: Why Some People Thrive at the Limits, by Emma Barrett and Paul Martin

Do tales of derring-do contain tips for surviving in the cubicle jungles? David Green finds out

November 20, 2014

Those who take on the harshest environments are typically viewed by those who do not with a mixture of astonishment and awe. And even the harshest cynic’s heart can be warmed by sheer charisma or heartfelt accounts of fearlessness (or folly). This book’s strength, if perhaps also its weakness, is that it tries to remain scientifically objective, even distant. In fact, only when extolling the virtues of meditation does passion appear – the very quality, one might think, that allows people not only to rise above the pressures of modern life but also to ascend Everest.

Although summaries neatly conclude each mini-section on “Bravery”, “Know-how”, “Resilience” and the like, one is left without the incredulity or insight typically experienced when meeting adventurers. Although Emma Barrett and Paul Martin cover almost every characteristic that might be advantageous (or simply dangerous), we never get to know what makes adventurers tick. Such a disparate group cannot and should not be caricatured; but the implication (and it may be intentional) is that you, the reader, could be an adventurer too – having first honed your strategy in the office jungle. Frequently, the line between waiting for an Ocado delivery and sitting on a rocky crevice praying for a storm to pass seems perilously fine.

Explorers are rarely reckless, frequently control freaks, but they can be made as well as born. Experience is valuable, but only when you know its limits and yours; equally important is following your judgement on occasions, rather than the prevailing wisdom. However, not learning from others’ failure and instead cultivating a superiority complex is a well-trodden path to mortality. Even for solo journeys, we are told, you must surround yourself with people who have the characteristics you seek; even bravery is contagious.

Listen most carefully to those who doubt you, we learn; practise under stress and take time to reflect, but not dwell – whether ascending “unclimbable” peaks or revising for “killer” exams. Focus on solutions, not problems, and don’t take all the grit out of your walking shoes. Take every day like it is not going to be your last, and (wait for it) stay calm, stop, improve, and carry on. Be amenable, or at least not wholly unbearable; if you want to lead, focus on being competent, compassionate and trustworthy rather than charismatic. Think about everything you could possibly need, be resilient, and leave the kids at home.

Much of this sounds like common sense, but there are some surprises, too. For instance, there is a strong relationship between loneliness and the desire for solitude. But don’t despair: solitude can make porridge taste better – as long as you are a happy introvert. We also learn that many do not seek the solitude and monotony that can accompany extreme endeavour but are fighting the boredom of everyday life. Often, the hardest journey is walking away from danger.

This is not a self-help book, but the authors hammer home the message that by harnessing harmonious passion, practising delayed gratification (unless you are hypoglycaemic) and channelling our focus, we can walk a path towards fulfilment and happiness even if we don’t end up standing on the shoulders of giants. But probably its most salutary lesson is to think carefully before killing all the mice in your cave, as they may turn out to be your only friends.

Extreme: Why Some People Thrive at the Limits

By Emma Barrett and Paul Martin
Oxford University Press, 296pp, £16.99
ISBN 9780199668588
Published 23 October 2014

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